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Economic and Social History Blog

41. Women at the Olympics (7-5-2020)

Women at the Olympics (7-5-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

What do the medals won at the Olympics tell us about the competing countries? In previous blogs I already explored how successful countries are in cooperative team sports, and in which countries athletes seem to have a killer instinct, but perhaps the most obvious feature to look at is the gender balance of the medals distribution. It is likely that gender relations in a country are to some extent reflected in the number of golden, silver and bronze medals for female athletes. Some countries, at one extreme, do not delegate female athletes at all – for religious reasons for example (Saudi Arabia is a case in point). The hypothesis might be that the stronger the position of women is in a particular society, the better they will be able to compete internationally. Let’s see if it works.

For the entire dataset, the share of women in all three medals is 29%, which in itself demonstrates the subordinate position women had in the Olympics (and in sports in general). In recent Olympics it is close to 50%, but still slightly below it – in the 1970s it was still below 30%, and the further back in time you go, the lower this share is (in 1896 it was exactly zero). Dutch women do well, with a share of 42% for the entire period, and remarkably, Belgian women do very poorly, with only 5%. Can we conclude that Dutch women are much more emancipated than Belgian women, or is the explanation a much greater interest in sports, versus a preference for ‘elegance’ that conflicts with serious work in the gym? The 5% for Belgium is so low that I am not sure if I trust it, but for many other European countries the share of female medals is also much lower than the 42% for the Netherlands. Germany: 33%, France 13%, Italy 13%, Spain 27%, Sweden 15% (would you not have expected a much higher share?), UK 19%.

To find countries that beat the Netherlands in this respect, we have to go beyond European borders, or to former Comecon countries. Australia also scores a 42% for women, South Korea 46%, Rumania 54%, the former DDR 43%, and China an amazing 66%. To finish the list: USA 32%, Japan 33%, and the USSR/Russia a similar 33% – all close to the average. But some of the high scores for (former) communist countries cast doubt on the ratio as an index of female empowerment. Countries like the DDR had highly developed programmes to select potential athletes when they were very young, and push them to greater achievements – with all possible means, even at the expense of their health. The over-representation of women of such countries may mean that in female sports there were – perhaps due to its ‘backwardness’- more results that could be achieved in this way; or alternatively, women – girls – were more malleable, fitted better in such ‘oppressive’ systems. I don’t know, but it shows that we cannot simply use these data as indices of female agency. And that is a pity.

Continue reading: The Putin Cycle (9-5-2020)